The Angkor temple complex near Siem Reap Cambodia is one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited. I cringe to think we almost did not go there after reading reviews about the site being too touristy. There are over 100 monuments in the area created by thousands of artisans starting more than 1,000 years ago. It is the spiritual and cultural heart of Cambodia and deeply touched my soul.
Prince Jayavarman II claimed independence from Java founding the Angkor Kingdom in AD 802. About the same time as Charlemagne became the Holy Roman Emperor. Jayavarman II declared himself to be the first Khmer God-King, a tradition which continues in current times. The reigning monarch identified with Shiva, the King of Hindu Gods.
After a succession of leaders, Suryavarman II became leader of the Angkor Empire. He hugely expanded the Empire and was responsible for the construction of Angkor Wat between AD 1113 and 1150. Suryavarman II was relentless in attacking and driving out the Champa State. In 1177 the Chams took revenge and sacked Angkor.
Then came Jayavarman VII (1181 – 1218). After four years of war he drove out the Chams and expanded the Khmer Empire even further. He constructed Preah Khan to use as a temporary seat of government until Angkor Thom could be completed. Jayavarman VII built hospitals, rest houses and a complex road system. The Angkor complex covers 77 square miles.
Bas Reliefs in Angkor Wat
In 1218 the Empire began to fall into decline which continued over the next two hundred years. The temples were decaying and the once magnificent architectural system fell into ruins. Angkor became uninhabitable and the royal capital was abandoned to the Siamese in 1431.
The Angkor Empire lasted for about 500 years. There is much speculation around the fall of the Empire. The Thais were encroaching on Khmer territory making Angkor an unsuitable location. Perhaps the huge population put a strain on the forest and water resources. Some say the introduction of Theravada Buddhism in the 13th Century undermined the prestige of the King and priests. The precise reason for the decline of the Empire continues to be a topic of debate.
The ruins of Angkor were reported by foreigners as early as the 16th Century. The jungle had encroached on the structures, but the magnificence was apparent. Over the years the temples were heavily looted. Some of the treasures remain on display in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
In 1992 Angkor was declared a World Heritage Site and opened to the public. Monies and efforts from around the world have gone into restoration. As I wandered around I decided 1,000 archeologists could spend 100 years and still have plenty of work to do.
If you make it to Angkor – a lunch spot recommendation
This family owned restaurant is just on the east side of Angkor Thom. It is called Ta Prohm (like the temple) and has killer noodle bowls.